First-grader Analyce Vue and three of her seven siblings sat on a blanket at Valley Hi Community Park last week munching on turkey sandwiches shaped like fish.
The lunches complete with fruit, salad and milk were delivered by a yellow school bus, courtesy of the Elk Grove Unified School District and federal tax dollars.
Analyce and her brothers and sisters are among the lucky ones. Sacramento County has about 40 fewer sites serving free meals to needy children this summer than it had last year.
The local program was greatly reduced after the county's largest sponsor the city of Sacramento pulled out of the program, shuttering its 64 summer meal sites. Local school districts have stepped in to provide programs at some of the sites.
City officials decided to end Sacramento's 10-year involvement with the summer meal program last August. It had begun to cost the city more than it was being reimbursed, said Alan Tomiyama, Sacramento recreation manager.
He said the city spent $240,000 from its general fund on the program in the 2010-11 fiscal year.
"It felt more reasonable to pull out of the summer food operation and let someone else take it over," Tomiyama said.
Federally funded summer programs feed children age 18 and younger in low-income communities during summer months when schools are closed. All of the meals must meet nutrition guidelines.
The programs are particularly important in California as more schools choose not to hold summer school, which provides lunch, said Sharon Ray, manager of the Summer Food Program for the California Department of Education. Programs can provide breakfast, lunch, dinner or snacks, according to the CDE.
The Sacramento City Unified School District is among the local school districts stepping up its summer food service, serving meals at 33 sites, according to state data. Sixty-nine percent of the district's students qualify for reduced-priced or free lunches.
"We cannot allow the children who rely on us for meals to go hungry in the summer," said Superintendent Jonathan Raymond in a prepared statement. "We must ensure that our kids have access to healthy food so they are well-fed and ready for class when they return in September."
Elk Grove Unified and Natomas Unified are each serving lunch at four sites, while San Juan Unified has opted to place its free lunch program at its San Juan Central headquarters.
Twin Rivers Unified is serving lunch at 26 sites, although they are not listed on the CDE website.
Statewide 3,239 sites are offering either the Summer Food Service Program or the Seamless Summer Option federally funded programs that offer meals for children in low-income communities. School districts, nonprofits and parks departments usually operate the lunch sites.
In Sacramento County there are 110 approved sites, although only 91 are open to the public. The other 19 are at camps or other programs that require enrollment. Last year there were 135 sites in the county open to the public.
Tomiyama said the city of Sacramento, which doesn't have kitchens or food-delivery vehicles, had to contract with school districts to prepare and deliver the meals. The amount of those contracts became more and more expensive because of increased costs, but the government reimbursement wasn't increasing at the same rate.
The 64 city-sponsored sites were primarily in low-income apartment complexes and schools. School districts picked up some of the school sites, but low-income apartment complexes are mostly without summer lunch programs, according to state data.
Residents are "crossing their fingers" that some organization will start a lunch program at the Acacia Meadow Apartments on Stockton Boulevard, where the city provided it in the past, said manager Orlando Avila.
"Children looked forward to it and parents need it," he said.
Avila said families living at Acacia Meadows make an average of about $21,000 a year and include families earning less than $15,000 annually. He said many work full-time at minimum-wage jobs.
"We are hoping, for next year, that we find a nonprofit or private organization (to take these sites), Ray said.
The city program, run through the Parks and Recreation Department, included arts and crafts, and games for the children, Avila said.
A CD playing a catchy tune about eating fruits and vegetables was the only entertainment for kids at Valley Hi Community Park on Tuesday. But the atmosphere was festive.
Families sat on blankets under trees as bubbly food services worker Susan McCutcheon yelled out, "We'll be here tomorrow!" and "Don't miss me tomorrow!"
McCutcheon said the lunch site, across the street from Herman Leimbach Elementary, draws kids eager to run into classmates they haven't seen since school let out for the summer.
But the 13-year district food-service veteran said the program does more than offer a sense of community.
"It helps families stretch their dollars," she said.